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Highly Recommended! 'Ragtime'



In the last few weeks, many openings have been productions where the story involves race relations of some type. “Ragtime” based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, is a beautifully told story about three families, from different backgrounds and how their paths crossed during the turn of the century (the turn from the 1800’s to the 1900’s). They are all in search of “the American Dream” and in this musical piece written by Terrence McNally with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, we get to view how this all comes to be. The good, the bad and as it turns out, the ugly phases of the three families.

Recently, another production of this masterful play was produced in a smaller theater, The Den, on Milwaukee Avenue. Now, on the much larger stage of The Marriott Theatre of Lincolnshire, in-the-round, we get a glimpse of a full scale production. With Marriott, nothing is spared. They go all out and they are in a position to have the budget to do so. This is a story about America, the way it was back in the early 1900’s and what those who came here were seeking and hoping for. It is about those who desired to come here and of course, those who were brought here against their wills ( slavery/African-Americans).

This is a play that tells us a story that is in fact, our country’s history and under the solid direction of Nick Bowling, who continues to amaze me with his insight into musicals and slick choreography by Kenneth L. Roberson with solid musical direction by Ryan T. Neslon, Marriott has another “sure winner” ( will they get Jeff nomination-you bet!). The cast is powerful with voices that will make the music ring into not just your ears, but your mind and heart as well. Many get tired of hearing the recurring theme of the opening number “Ragtime” ( by the way, a sparkling 13 minute number that will spellbound you), but this piece is closer to an American Opera, than a musical, so I for one, enjoy hearing the theme over and over. It is part of the splendor of the piece.

What a cast! Our WASP family members are: Father ( Adam Monley), his lovely and loving wife, Mother ( deftly handled by Kathy Voytko), their son , the little boy ( Patrick Scott McDermott is not only adorable, he is a solid performer), and Mother’s brother (Will Mobley) and grandfather ( Chicago’s favorite character actor, Terry Hamilton). When Mother finds a baby in her flower garden, she begins to feel her soul come to life. The baby is African-American and the mother is one Sarah ( incredibly played by Katherine Thomas, who played the role in last year’s Den Theatre production) who had the baby out- of -wedlock with a performer, Coalhouse Walker ( Nathaniel Stampley is INCREDIBLE in this role) a Ragtime musician.

Their story is one that become entwined with the immigrants who have come to America during this period to begin their new lives: Harry Houdini ( Alexander Aguilar) for one, Emma Goldman (Christina Hall) and Tateh ( a superb character study and performance by Benjamin Magnuson) and his daughter, the Little Girl ( Paula Hlava ). These are just some of the people who found themselves leaving their homelands to find their fortune and freedom. The stories do end up intertwining with the others and we learn that the different ethnic groups did have some similarities.

As we follow the love story of Coalhouse and Sarah, we see that the times caused situations that could not be controlled by any of the parties, so despite the difference of the people, they all found that their lives were not as different as one might think. This was the early part of the 20th century and if we pick up the daily paper, we might see that what was, is still! That alone is pretty scary.

I was very impressed with the ensemble of this piece. They were strong and the voices are amazing to hear. There are not many stand alone musical numbers in this 2 hour-35-minute musical, but the music helps to tell a powerful story. Of course the opening number (12 minutes) with the melody recurring throughout is what you will recall, but songs like “The Wheels of A Dream”, “Look What You’ve Done”, “Our Children” and “Getting Ready Rag” will also stick in your mind. The comic number “What A Game” , a day at the ball park, is adorable from start to finish offering true comic relief. By the way, there are some definite “tissue times”, so I suggest 5 tissues per person in your party!

Back to the ensemble. Kirsten Hodgens, who plays “Sarah’s Friend (that is what the program calls her) is a superb talent. Her voice is powerful and amazing to hear. Other notables are Jonathan Butler-Duplessis ( Booker T. Washington) who is a Jeff Award winner, Larry Adama ( a Chicago and Munster favorite that handles many roles in this production), James Earl Jones II, Ron King, Teressa LaGamba, Elizabeth Telford, Khadijah Rolle, Christopher Kale Jones, Shea Coffman, Curtis Bannister, Ken Singleton, Matt Deitchman, Christina Hall and Michelle Lauto as the very sexy Evelyn Nesbitt.

This play should be both a lesson in history and a hope for the future. That is what was said some twenty years ago. I am not so sure that our country is up to where they should be today and even more concerned that the future, which should be brighter for immigrants and ethnic groups is not what they had hoped for- “The American Dream”.

The tech portions of this production are as close to perfection as a producer might desire. Patti Garwood and her orchestra fill the theater with the great music of the show. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set is very workable. Again, we are in-the-round, so there are limitations. I never had a sight line problem. Jesse Klug’s lighting is ideal, Theresa Ham’s costumes near perfect, Robert E. Gilmatrin’s sound solid and the props by Sally Zack, perfect.This is a thinking play bout history, bigotry, love, revenge, hatred and prejudice, and yet again, love!

Once again, Marriott Theatre brings great theater to the North Shore!